In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote, “A tragedy…is the imitation of an action that is serious and also…complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” It was with this, as well as the necessary abstraction of experience in art and the various limits and purposes of visceral identification with a fictional character, in mind that I read my editor and partner in crime Anna Moeslein’s email forward of an invitation to “live like Anastasia Steele” for a night in honor of the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the unrated cut of Fifty Shades Darker. I replied, “Yes, we totally have to go to that.”
I had already seen Fifty Shades Darker, sober, by myself, for the purpose of reviewing it, rented Fifty Shades of Grey to see what I’d missed, and seen Fifty Shades Darker, again, wine-drunk, with my friend Allie. I’d also tested Ana’s berry lipstick look. So, though not an expert, I considered myself fairly well-versed in the franchise, but I was completely unprepared for what the night had in store.
According to the email, it was an “elegant event,” so I wore a dress and the aforementioned lipstick, but the first thing I noticed upon arrival was that I was kinda underdressed. Wait, no, that’s not the first thing I noticed. The first thing was that when I got to the hotel, a man in a suit and mask directed me down a flight of stairs that led me past three more men in suits and masks wishing me “welcome” and “good evening.” These guys were everywhere, milling about, flirting, offering to escort guests to the restroom or fetch them champagne. I immediately got a drink, then texted Anna “PEOPLE ARE IN MASKS!!!” and set about exploring the space. I found:
-A “red room” with display cases full of ropes and whips where a person could sit and listen to a man in a mask read aloud from the book.
-A makeup station where guests could have their lipstick done in Anastasia’s red lip look.
-A display of some of the costumes from the masquerade ball scene.
-A bar with food and drinks.
-A photo area where guests could have their picture taken with the masked men in front of a wall of roses, with props including boas and masks.
-The film’s costume designer settled into a lounge chair where, presumably, a person could ask her questions.
I overheard a woman ask one of the many (there were probably 20) masked men his name, to which he replied, “Christian, of course!” Anna, who arrived after me, said she caught one of the guys checking his script as she came down the stairs. Her first observation, like mine, was, “Everyone’s so dressed up. Didn’t they come from work [like we are]?” I ventured a guess: “I think they’re not all press. I think they’re…fans?” Turns out, I was right. These women had come from all over the country—all over the globe, actually—to see this movie with the night’s guest of honor: Fifty Shades author E.L. James, who would be doing a Q&A before a screening of the unrated version.
And these women were having a good time. They were chatting, flirting with the masked men, networking, and making friends. They were also, as Anna and I were, drinking champagne, wine, and the night’s signature cocktails: “The Christian” (too strong) and “The Anastasia” (pink and so good). I noticed that the movie stills decorating the wall behind the bar were of Ana and Ana alone, and then I realized what was so fun about drinking cocktails with this group of people: It was just ladies.
I mean, there were perhaps three male journalists there—and the aforementioned masked escorts—but none of them were drinking or even talking all that much. My number one complaint about the bar scene in New York is that for me, it’s hard to completely enjoy being with my friends or let myself get really tipsy because there’s always the chance that some asshole will try to feel someone up or pick a fight. I know of women who have been assaulted in the bathroom, drugged by the bartender, pickpocketed at a happy hour. I’m not saying that women are never guilty of these behaviors, or that a person can’t have a good time in a co-ed public setting. But by and large, it’s just easier to get drunk around a bunch of other women. Without signing a contract or establishing a safeword (har har har), I felt protected as hell. And tipsy!
After transferring our champagne into plastic cups, we filed into the screening room and found gift bags on our seats, which contained the following:
–Fifty Shades Darker (the book)
-The MAC liquid lipstick that had just been applied to our faces by professional makeup artists (I highly recommend it)
-A Fifty Shades–branded candle
-A gray mask like Anastasia’s in the ball scene
-A “Yes!” keychain like the one Ana gives Christian that actually, I already had (on my keys) because it came with the DVD/Blu-Ray of Fifty Shades Darker sent to my office, so now I have two; please let me know if you want one.
(Note: This post is in no way sponsored by the Universal PR team, which does a helluva job.)
The middle-aged woman sitting to my left—let’s call her Susan (I never learned her name; it may well be Susan)—struck up a conversation using the secret “I want to chat” code that all women know: She complimented my shoes. From there we moved on to her family (daughter around my age), and then to Fifty Shades. Lemme tell ya, Susan had the dish. “So are you part of ‘The 50?'” she asked. When I said no, she explained that the majority of the guests were readers from E.L. James’ (then writing as “SnowQueens IceDragon”) early days of posting. In short, I was in a room with Fifty Shades‘ biggest superfans. But Susan insisted she wasn’t—she was here as someone’s “plus-one.” Susan, unlike Anna and me, had read the books. But, according to her, “They’re terrible…and Erika [E.L. James] knows they’re terrible. The writing is bad, but everyone knows that; it’s not about the writing.” Susan writes for a website all about romance novels—she would know?
This discussion did not go unnoticed by the fans around us—I caught a few dirty looks—but Susan could not be stopped in her quest to fill me in. “It really spread through word of mouth,” she explained about the book’s rise to the top of the best-seller charts, “from nannies on Long Island. There were kids not getting picked up from school because all the nannies were at home reading this.” Despite a professed dislike for the franchise, Susan knew, in her words, “everything” about it. (“Ask me anything about Fifty Shades, I know everything.”) Her main interest was not the characters, but their creator: E.L. James. “Erika, she’s their queen,” she explained. “And no amount of obsequiousness is enough for her. She knows all of them, every Twitter handle, what they wrote under on the blogs. They love her. She’s their Oprah.”
I looked around to better observe the fandom. The woman seated directly in front of me had a picture of Jamie Dornan as the lock screen on her phone. A gaggle of ladies three rows in front of me were having the most fun taking group pictures. One had brought the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack on vinyl and unfolded the cover. Inside, there was a big picture of Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson looking at each other, about to kiss. She held the picture up behind her, putting her face in front of Johnson’s, so that it looked like she was about to kiss Dornan. Everyone took pictures and went “aww.”
Then E.L. James came in. The women of the audience yelled out at her, called her Erika, and applauded. James waved at the crowd with one hand, the other clutching the arm of the masked man who was escorting her to her seat on the stage. During the Q&A, I learned that James has the same haircut (long, dark, bangs) as Anastasia and that, for her, this is a novel that really reaches people. She said readers tell her about how they’ve been in a relationship with damaged people like Christian; one family told her they adopted an abused child and used the same therapies that Christian later receives to help him deal with human touch. And when she said they had to cut scenes from the book to make the movie two hours instead of seven, everyone in the audience yelled something to the effect of, “We would really like a seven-hour version of this movie.”
After, James signed everyone’s books and took pictures. As promised by Susan, she remembered everyone by their online name and if they’d met before. She was generous, seemingly invested, and—even though I’m pretty sure she realized I had, like, no connection to the material—warm. Anna and I were chatting when Susan returned from having her book signed and, I suspect, grabbing a drink: “Can I tell you my story?” she asked. “I just wrote about Grey [Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian’s POV], and she saw my article. She knew who I was. That’s a big deal for a book blogger.” I congratulated Susan, and Anna and I got up to grab some (delicious) popcorn from the masked men. When we returned, Susan asked, “Did I tell you? She saw my article!” She repeated the story, thrilled to be noticed by an author whose prose she claimed to dislike. I pretended like I was hearing this information for the first time, but I must have given myself away because Susan saw my reaction (or lack thereof). “It’s big,” she said. “I know you’re both cynical….”
“We’re not cynical!” Anna and I protested, almost in unison. Do cynical people sit through a screening of something they’ve both already seen, in my case twice? Sure, we thought it was a little silly, but we didn’t judge the other women for enjoying it. And we were, in fact, having a blast, up to and including watching the movie.
Now, you know how some movies are meant to be seen on a date (Love Story, The Notebook) or meant to be seen on a big screen (Gravity, Interstellar)? Fifty Shades Darker is meant to be seen in a room full of The 50. They were so damn into it. They laughed at the pinings of Ana’s friend José and got very excited every time the film included a line verbatim from the book. I think some were even extras in the film because they pointed excitedly at the screen during a few outdoor shots. At one point someone yelled, “Show us the dick!” though I later learned that person was not a fan but another member of the press, specifically Madeleine Davis of Jezebel. But still!
Anna and I made a game of trying to figure out what “unrated” footage had been added. Here’s what we came up with:
-Two scenes of Ana calling her mom
-Sex on the pool table
-A kiss in an alley
-More footage of the helicopter crash
-A family dinner scene post–helicopter crash
Susan was quiet, until (mild spoiler) the unstable stalker character shot a gun, and, startled by the noise, she grabbed my knee. “Gets me every time!” she said.
In the film’s final act, there’s a gloriously gratuitous montage of Dornan working out shirtless. At one point he balances on a pommel horse and…I don’t know what the move is called, but he slowly raises his body into a plank position using only his arm strength? It looks very difficult. The women at the front had a little tradition for this scene: As Dornan raised his body, they raised their hands, and made an “aaaa–aaaAAA–AAAAHHHH” sound that crescendoed like in “Twist & Shout.” I looked to my left to see Susan’s reaction, but she was asleep in her chair.
Leaving the screening room, we were greeted by a receiving line of the masked men, who recited “laters, baby” (a little inside joke between Christian and Ana in the film and also the phrase James signed in our books) as we passed. I giggled every time. On the cab ride home, I considered whether it had, indeed, been an “elegant” event. All told, yeah. Nice hotel, good food, real drinks. And there was something exclusive besides E.L. James that we’d been treated to: a preview of Fifty Shades Freed. I honestly can’t remember anything about it, except that I thought, Well, I guess I’m gonna see that.
Fifty Shades Darker is available on Digital HD, DVD, and Blu-Ray